janus v. AFSCME

Supreme Court decision in Janus deals blow to nation’s teachers unions

Teachers unions absorbed a deep but expected blow on Wednesday from the nation’s highest court.

The 5-4 ruling in the case, Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, means that states and school districts will no longer be able to require their employees to pay negotiating fees to the unions that bargain on their behalf. That could mean a steep decline in union membership and dues, which in turn will limit the unions’ political power — the hope of the conservative groups that helped bring the case.

“We conclude that public-sector agency-shop arrangements violate the First Amendment,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito in the majority opinion. He emphasized that employees must also affirmatively opt in to union membership, potentially making unions’ efforts to keep members even more challenging.

In a sharply worded dissent, Justice Elena Kagan warned: “Across the country, the relationships of public employees and employers will alter in both predictable and wholly unexpected ways.”

“Judicial disruption does not get any greater than what the Court does today,” Kagan wrote.

Unions have been preparing for this outcome, which seemed like an inevitability after Donald Trump won the presidential election. That gave him the opportunity to replace Antonin Scalia, whose unexpected death led to the 4-4 tie in a similar case two years ago.

Publicly, teachers unions have put on a brave face while acknowledging the challenges this decision would bring. Twenty-two states currently allow unions to collect those agency fees.

“Don’t count us out,” American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten tweeted after the decision’s release. “While today the thirst for power trumped the aspirations and needs of communities and the people who serve them, workers are sticking with the union because unions are still the best vehicle working people have to get ahead.”

The National Education Association, the nation’s largest union, has planned for staff cutbacks in anticipation of the ruling and projects that 300,000 members will leave. In California, unions have gotten laws passed designed to help keep teachers in the fold, including ensuring school districts provide unions with teacher contact information and opportunities to meet with new members. In New York City, the powerful United Federation of Teachers, which counts nearly 200,000 members, has knocked on thousands of classroom doors to tell teachers about the case and persuade them to stick with the union.

“Our union will remain strong, and we will not be silenced,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said Wednesday.

The decision will have less of an impact in the 28 where mandatory fees were already banned, like Tennessee.

To critics who say teachers unions have been a barrier to school reform efforts, the case presents another opportunity to push for their vision. Those critics include Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has assailed unions as “defenders of the status quo.”

A number of states, including Wisconsin and Michigan, have worked to cripple unions in a manner consistent with Janus. In both states, union membership has dropped and union dues have fallen, though significantly more so in Wisconsin than Michigan. “We’re already in a post-Janus world,” a union spokesperson in Michigan recently told Chalkbeat.

Research subsequently found that in Wisconsin, where new laws severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt out of unions, student achievement suffered and teacher compensation fell. In Michigan, weaker unions and tougher evaluations led to a spike in teachers turnover in disadvantaged schools, another study found.

The decision comes as teachers across the country are increasingly energized politically: running for office, pushing for higher salaries, and protesting DeVos.

“It’s like the best of times and the worst of times,” said Weingarten in Education Week.

That suggests that if Janus weakens unions in a way that means that they can’t bargain for higher pay, it could encourage the kind of teacher uprisings and strikes recently seen in states like Oklahoma, Arizona, and West Virginia to spread.

The legal case turned on the First Amendment: plaintiff Mark Janus, a child support specialist employed by the state of Illinois, argued that requiring him to pay union fees amounted to forcing him to support a political organization, violating his free speech rights. Janus is not required to join the union, and public employees like him can instead choose to pay “agency fees” to cover bargaining costs rather than full union membership costs. Unions argue that this avoids a free-rider problem, where workers can benefit from union contract negotiation without paying for it; Janus argued that such negotiations are inherently political.

In a unanimous 1977 case, the Supreme Court ruled that although government can’t make employees join a union, they can require payment of agency fees. Today’s decision overrules that case.

First Person

I’m a fifth-year Chicago teacher, and the challenges aren’t letting up. Now what?

PHOTO: Getty

When I started as a teacher in Chicago Public Schools, I remember hearing that half of teachers in urban school districts leave them in their first five years. When I went through rough patches I would wonder, was I going to make it?

I did make it, completing my fifth year of teaching last spring. But I can’t help but feel like something still isn’t right.

I feel like this should be the time when I am starting to really develop my expertise, feel secure in my skills and abilities, and build the self-confidence that I am effective in my craft. Instead, I  feel lucky just to be surviving day to day and week to week.

I thought that by now I would be in a groove with planning and preparation. I thought that my Sundays might actually be relaxing. Instead, I find myself filled with the “Sunday scaries,” scrambling to get materials created, adjust lesson plans, and polish final drafts of IEPs. I never feel “caught up,” and can’t say I have ever known what that feels like.

Even though my class sizes are not the largest in the district, they are filled with students who — although so talented, resilient, and special — have such a wide variety of needs and deficits that I don’t feel I can adequately address given all of the constraints I face. There simply are not enough resources and time to do everything I need to do to give my students the best that they deserve. This weighs on me, leading to overwhelming feelings of guilt and helplessness that are often paralyzing.

In short, I am mentally and emotionally exhausted, and I know many of my fellow teachers are too.

I’ve been thinking about this reality more since I joined a number of colleagues at an educator mental health-focused event in October. We dug into our own struggles and and then worked on ways to manage our stress. We named our biggest day-to-day stressors and then explored different ways to practice self-care — such as journaling, meditation, or picking up an instrument — to balance out the feelings of high anxiety and pressure we feel at work. I left with a number of resources to seek out on my own as well as a sense of renewal. But the onus was on me to find solutions moving forward.

Now, Chicago’s mayoral race is heating up. And while I work on managing the stress of this job, it’s also on policymakers — including our next mayor — to address the stressors themselves.

Large class sizes, the limited time we are allotted to plan and prepare for the school day, insufficient paid time-off policies, and ever-tighter budgets we are asked to stretch to meet our students’ needs are all the result of policies that could be changed.

I can’t practice enough self-care to replace the structural changes needed to make our profession more sustainable.

But school leaders, the mayor, and state policymakers, could make a difference. More independent and collaboration time in teachers’ days would help give us time to chip away at expanding to-do lists. Real teacher-leader roles would give teachers power and voice in school decisions. Schools destigmatizing “mental health” days and organizing activities to help teachers de-stress would help, too.

Dissenters may point to the fact that in many other jobs you’re expected to manage your work-life balance and handle stress on your own. But teaching isn’t like every other job: the stakes are especially high, and we have less control of our time and are more isolated in our work. Students benefit from teachers with experience, and every time a capable teacher leaves Chicago’s schools because they were overwhelmed, students lose out.

For my part, I pledge to be aware of my mental health needs and plan to be intentional about my self-care this school year. I hope Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Teachers Union, and our city and state elected leaders will commit to helping me and my colleagues not only to survive, but to thrive in our jobs.

As mayoral candidates continue to flesh out their education plans, they need to acknowledge that our mental health and well-being is critical to our success as teacher. How are they planning to help us access resources like counseling services? Prioritizing how to best care for educators will help us continue to provide the best care possible for students.

Teachers are already doing exceptional work given the many constraints they face. Imagine what more we could do for our students if we were better equipped ourselves.

Dayna Heller is a special education teacher at Roger C. Sullivan High School in Rogers Park. She is an active member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher-led policy organization.

tick tock

Denver district, teachers union make some progress as contract deadline looms, but still far apart

PHOTO: Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat
Denver teachers listen to an update on bargaining during the second to last day of negotiations before the ProComp contract expires.

Something unusual happened near the end of bargaining Thursday between the Denver teachers union and school administrators: The district offered a change to its proposal, and some teachers gathered in the audience snapped their fingers in approval.

The two sides are still far apart in terms of reaching an agreement on Denver Public Schools’ ProComp system, which offers teachers bonuses on top of their base salary for things like teaching in a high-poverty school or earning a strong evaluation. The deadline for a deal is Friday, with teachers set to vote on either strike or ratification Saturday and Tuesday. The district’s and the union’s proposals still reflect different ideas about how teachers should earn more compensation — and have very different price tags.

But Thursday’s session was a far cry from the intense frustration that marked Tuesday’s bargaining session. On that day, district officials departed the bargaining table to “process” after the union refused to make a counteroffer to the most recent district proposal. Teachers filled the room after school and waited in hot, cramped conditions for a response that never came.

Thursday’s session opened with tense verbal sparring, but by the afternoon, the union had made changes to its proposal that reduced the cost by an estimated $2.5 million. District officials said they would spend the night and early Friday morning analyzing the proposal and seeing where else they might be able to move.

The district did offer a small concession Thursday that some teachers seemed to appreciate: increasing tuition reimbursement 50 percent, to $6,000. Denver Superintendent Susana Cordova said research shows this type of incentive is a strong tool for recruiting and keeping teachers, especially teachers of color. The money for this will come from reducing the bonus that teachers get for teaching in a so-called “distinguished” school.

More often, Denver teachers have reacted with boos to offers that the district saw as significant steps toward the union position.

Beyond small steps like the tuition reimbursement, Cordova said she was “very open to considering” aspects of the union proposal, a sentiment that seemed to clear the way for more back-and-forth.

“The district has moved and DCTA was willing to change their proposal,” said Tiffany Choi, a French teacher at East High School who attended the bargaining session. “We both showed willingness to compromise, and that’s positive.”

Dana Berge, a member of the union bargaining team, said the district is “beginning to listen to us, but they are not listening to us in terms of the values in our proposal.”

Both proposals keep some bonuses, at much more modest levels, and put more money into base pay. And both proposals lay out a schedule for how Denver teachers can earn more money, both by “steps,” or number of years of service, and by “lanes,” or additional educational achievement.

The union proposal has more lanes and allows Denver teachers to start moving up by earning additional college credit or by taking the kind of professional development that teachers need to do anyway. Teachers take such training to maintain their teaching licenses — or because they see a need, for example, to learn more about helping students with trauma. The union’s counteroffer Thursday removed one of the lanes, bringing down the total cost.

The district’s first lane change comes with a master’s degree, completing 10 years of service, earning an advanced license, or earning national board certification.

Berge said the union proposal more closely mimics those in other districts and will keep “highly dedicated, highly trained, highly experienced teachers” in Denver and reduce the problem of losing more experienced teachers to better-off suburban districts while less experienced teachers concentrate in the highest-needs schools.

She argued that a more stable salary structure would do more to keep teachers in high-poverty schools than the bonuses given under the current system.

The union proposal will cost a lot more than the district proposal. Cordova said the district is in the process of identifying “deep, deep cuts” to administrative positions to redirect money to classrooms, but even those won’t provide all the money needed to close the gap between the two sides.

During the long period in which each side was working separately on its proposals, a group of religious and community leaders from the Industrial Areas Foundation arrived to offer support to teachers and then a direct message to Cordova. They criticized her for framing the disagreement as one about values.

“Please don’t dare insinuate that you care more about the children in hard-to-serve, high-poverty schools than we do,” said Susan Cooper, a retired teacher and member of the organization. “We value solidarity, not a divide and conquer approach. We value stability, which we don’t have because we can’t keep teachers in Denver.”

Billy Williams of the Denver chapter of the NAACP said parents and community members would support the teachers “if they are forced to strike.”

Cordova said it was never her intent to suggest one side held the moral high ground.

“We can have similar goals, similar values, and different ideas about how to get those done,” she said. “Good people can disagree and still care about our kids.”

The two sides expect to resume bargaining at 10 a.m. Friday.